Monday, June 26, 2006

The Weight of God

60 Minutes re-ran a feature last night on musical savants. It explored the connection between blindness, mental disability and musical genius.

The main subject, a young boy named Rex, could not button his shirt or walk through his house, but he could listen to any song and play it instantly on the piano. He’s not alone, either. CBS interviewed two other savants with similar conditions.

Immediately, I thought of an Emily Dickinson poem called “The Brain is Wider than the Sky,” which has the last verse:

The brain is just the weight of God
For heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

The initial connection was the spiritual one in the first line. Whenever Rex finished playing a piece, he would start shaking his hands violently and craning his neck. It reminded me of the violence of people who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Often, extremely talented people are burdened by their gifts, just as the prophets were often described as being burdened by prophecy. Rex and the others seemed to actually have gifts in the standard definition. It was as if music was given to them as a reprieve. When they played, the “weight” of God was lifted, and only the presence of God remained.

Later, though, I thought about the audible connection in the last line. This was a feature on people who have supreme difficulty with syllables, but extreme comfort making sounds. The poem sites no difference between the two.

I’m not the first person to think of this connection. A Google search of the first line of the poem — “The brain is wider than the sky” — yields a surprising number of sites relating to neurobiology — at least as many science-oriented sites and literature-oriented, maybe more. Most use the poem to summarize the prospects of the brain’s capabilities.

In the 60 Minutes piece, David Pinto, a piano teacher for Rex and other children like him, said, “As a composer I’ve had dreams where I went though a complete concerto that was impeccable, and it just rolled off, as a dream. Obviously, that means that it’s inside of us. Well, these kids can do that dream. There’s just nothing in between it.”

This reminded me of a study on memory I once read, possibly in "The Holographic Universe." When researchers electrically stimulated parts of a patient’s brain, the patient would start to instantly recall very specific and relatively unmemorable parts of their lives, from scenery down to dialogue. These researchers could keep hitting the exact same part of the brain and access the same memory. There were two points. One: The brain naturally stores information, even if most people don’t understand how to access that archived information. Two: “The whole contains every part.” Our brains store information so that it can be found from any starting place.

Maybe these savants can access the music because they cannot access other information, or maybe they cannot access other information because they can access the music.

The opposite of that is a recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how space artists have been challenged by actual NASA images. When Hubble, Voyager and the like starting sending pictures down to Earth, they were more bizarre that space art.

Rex is an example of the strangeness we know but cannot touch. Space Art is an example of the strangeness beyond how strange we assume the universe should be.